Summary: Reha feels pulled in two directions, spending her weekdays with her mostly white friends at school and her weekends with her family’s Indian community. Like many 13-year-olds, she feels like her parents–particularly her mother–don’t understand what she’s going through. Then her mom is diagnosed with leukemia, and Reha suddenly feels like she would give just about anything to go back to life the way it was before. As she and her father try to navigate hospital visits and caring for Amma while still dealing with work and school, Reha sometimes feels pushed to the breaking point. Friends, family, the Indian community, and the boy she’s had a crush on help get her through. When the unthinkable happens, Reha isn’t sure she will make it, but Amma has found a way to communicate and to let her daughter know that she has understood what she’s going through, and will somehow always be a part of her life. 224 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: Keep the Kleenexes handy as you make your way through this amazing novel in verse. It’s so much more than just a sad story, though: it’s a story of the immigrant experience of feeling caught between two worlds as well as a realistic middle school story with lots of fun 1983 details (especially the music!). I’m a little skeptical of Goodreads’ mock Newbery list, but this book is currently at #2.
Cons: This book came out in February, and I pretty much decided not to read it because it sounded like too much of a downer. I’m so glad it got enough Newbery buzz to make me change my mind, as I found it ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book.
Summary: When Nurah’s father announces he has taken a new job and is moving the family from Karachi, Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia, Nurah is heartbroken to leave her best friend and her grandparents. At her new school in Georgia, all she wants to do is blend in, but eating lunch by herself under a stairwell is lonely. Joining the swim team leads to a new friendship that changes Nurah’s feelings about school, and she’s motivated to work hard to become a champion swimmer like her older brother, Owais. When Owais is the target of a bullying incident at the pool that turns violent, and her father is questioned by the FBI following a terrorist incident, Nurah learns some difficult truths about being Muslim in America. But she also learns to help her brother overcome his trauma to get back in the pool and to be true to herself and her heritage. Includes an author’s note tying her personal experiences to the story; a glossary, and a recipe for aloo kabab. 352 pages grades 3-7.
Pros: A beautiful novel in verse that delves into many different issues, not only with Nurah and her family, but with her new friend Stahr, who has an abusive father. While not every reader has had Nurah’s experience of moving to an unfamiliar new country, many will relate to her wish to blend in while at the same time learning to appreciate her unique qualities.
Cons: I appreciate the brevity and economy of words of a novel in verse, but it’s also a format that makes it difficult to explore in depth the many topics (immigration, bullying, racial profiling, miscarriage, domestic abuse, etc.) that were included in this story.
Summary: A young girl discovers a treefrog in the garden outside her new home. As the two travel through the seasons together, she makes discoveries about both the frog and herself. It’s summer when she moves in. Some kids come to play, but they’re too noisy for both her and the frog. When school starts, she meets a boy who feels like more of a kindred spirit, and she brings him to meet the frog. The two friends enjoy winter, and in the spring, their patience is rewarded when they see the treefrog once again. Each page offers some treefrog facts as well as a poem and illustration. Includes a page of questions and answers that gives more treefrog information. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This delightful picture book functions as both a friendship story and a nonfiction book about treefrogs…and is narrated with Joyce Sidman’s simple but beautiful poetry.
Cons: No additional resources for further research.
Summary: Bear takes readers through a tour of his forest, beginning in the early spring and traveling through the year until he settles in for a long winter’s nap. Each spread features a poem and a list of about 12-15 items (mostly other animals) to find in the illustration. The last few pages are a “nature trail”, with a dotted line connecting circular pictures taken from the main illustrations; kids can turn back to find where they came from on the previous pages. Also includes a list of nature resources and poetry resources (all websites). 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This utterly charming book feels like a throwback to an earlier era. It made me want to brew a cup of tea, wrap up in a cozy afghan, and snuggle in with small children on either side of me to read some poems and hunt through the illustrations for the hidden objects.
Cons: At a little over a foot tall, this book may not fit on every library’s shelves.
Summary: Each two-page spread has a watercolor illustration of the tree in its natural habitat with animals that live in or near it, a free-verse poem, and several paragraphs of information about the tree. The “wisdom” aspect of trees is emphasized, showing the remarkable ways trees defend themselves, maintain Earth’s balance, and even communicate with each other. Includes an author’s note; additional information about each tree in the book and the future of forests; how to help forests; glossary; and sources. 48 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: This gorgeous science book has some pretty mind-blowing information about trees that scientists are just beginning to discover. It certainly gave me a new appreciation for trees, and it will undoubtedly have the same effect on younger readers.
Cons: It will take a pretty dedicated tree enthusiast to get through the entire book. But the good news is, if this tree book doesn’t grab you, there are a couple dozen more to choose from this year.
Summary: “Imagine your house is on fire. You’re allowed to save one thing. Your family and pets are safe, so don’t worry about them.” With this assignment, a class starts thinking about what’s important to them: a handknit sweater, a photo, a lock of hair, a collection. The kids express themselves in poems inspired by the ancient Korean poetry form sijo. Their presentations spark comments and debate among their classmates as they contemplate what they value…and even get their teacher to change her mind. 72 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Not quite long enough to be a novel in verse, this illustrated collection of poems is easy to read, but not simple, and will surely engage students in conversation long after they’ve turned the last page. I loved Linda Sue Park’s final statement in her author’s note about sijo: “Using old forms in new ways is how poetry continually renews itself, and the world.”
Cons: It would have been helpful to have the speaker in each poem identified.
Summary: Eleven-year-old Ellie has been bullied about her size for many years–by her classmates, her brother, and her mother, who is pushing her to have bariatric surgery. Things get worse when her best friend moves away the summer before sixth grade, and Ellie has to face middle school alone. Fortunately, a new girl next door becomes a friend, and Ellie’s sympathetic dad takes her to a therapist who helps her explore her emotions and learn to stand up for herself. It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do for Ellie’s family, but by the end she is feeling empowered to confront some of the bullies and to stop hiding who she really is. Includes a brief author’s note explaining how she based Ellie’s bullying on her own experiences. 256 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: I inhaled this novel in verse in a single sitting and can’t wait to share it with students at my school. I commend Nancy Paulsen (mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements) for seeing this as a middle grade book instead of YA. I think it will be a story that many fifth, sixth and seventh graders will take to heart and that will be invaluable to them as they navigate middle school and body image issues.
Cons: As much as I loved the verse format, I think its brevity made some of the work done in therapy seem a little quick and easy.
Summary: Kids from all over the United States and Canada come together for the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor Michigan in this anthology of short stories by different Native authors. Whether the kids are regulars on the powwow circuit or attending for the first time, they appreciate being part of their community as they dance, help out in the vendor booths, and hang out with friends and family. The sixteen stories are bookended by poems: “What Is a Powwow?” serves as an introduction and “Circles” concludes the book, followed by a glossary of words from each poem or story (in different Native languages); notes and acknowledgements from each writer; and brief biographies of all the contributors. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Since starting this blog in 2015, I’ve struggled to find books about contemporary Native life, so I’m delighted with this collection about many kids’ experiences by so many different authors. The stories are both funny and touching and would make excellent additions to any upper elementary or middle school ELA curriculum. I actually attended the Ann Arbor powwow in 1987, and reading this book made me want to go back.
Cons: The stories were interconnected, so characters from one story often showed up in another, but there were so many I had trouble keeping track (except for the dog wearing the Ancestor Approved t-shirt–I always recognized him).
Summary: Following an introduction by 9-year-old Milo Cress, founder of Be Straw Free, this poetry collection looks at different aspects of plastic, from its undeniable usefulness in many areas to the damage it is wreaking on the environment (especially the oceans) to different ways kids and teens are figuring out to recycle and find alternatives to plastic. Includes a two-page author’s note; a timeline of the history of plastic from 1839; alternatives to single-use plastic items; top ten plastic ocean polluters; sources, websites, and additional notes for each poem; poetry notes for each poem; three books for further reading; and additional websites for news about plastics. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: The poetry is just the beginning in this book that is jam-packed with information and inspiring stories about kids working to make a difference in the world by recycling or eliminating plastics. The colorful illustrators add a lot to the poems, and the 13 pages of back matter, enough to satisfy even me, would make this an excellent resource for older kids.
Cons: I was feeling so bummed after reading the first few poems that I almost didn’t make it to the more inspirational section.
Summary: Newbery Honor poet Joyce Sidman explores different aspects of Earth in these poems addressed to the planet itself. There’s a sense of wonder, “How can we be here, climbing trees, walking paths, staring up at constellations…and also out in deepest space?” There are poems about volcanoes, earthquakes, jungles, and mountains. Taken together, the poems are a love letter to Earth, and a promise to take care of the planet. Includes six pages of additional information about each topic addressed; resources about climate change, ways kids can help, and citizen science projects; and a list of books for further reading. 68 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This beautifully illustrated book of poems celebrates Earth and many aspects of earth science. The poems and illustrations are accessible to kids in primary grades, and the extensive back matter makes it useful for older kids to explore further.
Cons: Earth doesn’t seem to have any answers for all the questions.